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  • Writer's picturePastor Elaine

February 18, 2024: Contemplating the Post-Flood Promise, "Never Again"

Is the rainbow really a happy ending to the story of the flood?


“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”


Our first reading this morning is the end of the story of Noah and his family, animals and the flood.


This story is so familiar that we may not listen closely as the text is read.  Or perhaps we are transported back in time and think of hearing this story in Sunday school or teaching it to young people.


We know all about the story right?  God gets mad, God tells Noah to build a big boat (the ark) and gather the animals. But as the Irish Rovers taught us he was not completely successful in all his 2 by 2’s.  The unicorns were too busy playing and never made it onto the ark….


And then the rains come and come and come.  The ark floats for a very long time until finally the dove and the raven are sent to look for signs of land.

The land dries up - the ark is on a mountain and God makes a promise to Noah - never again.


That’s it for the story  - right? Well this morning let’s take a closer look at some of the elements in the story and then see how we feel about the sign of the rainbow and ask ourselves is this really a happy ending?


Last winter in our education program we looked at world mythology and we learned that Genesis is not the only place to record a flood story or myth.  There are very similar stories that come from ancient southwest Asia and northeast Africa.


This story comes from an old Babylonian myth that features a character called Atrahasis.


It goes like this:


The Old Babylonian flood story explains why things are the way they are for the contemporary authors and audience in the ancient world. Before the flood, there is a problem of overpopulation that disturbs the gods to such an extent that they decide to wipe out people; only by following the advice of a wise god does Atrahasis build a vessel to withstand the catastrophe. In the aftermath of the flood, the gods replace catastrophes of epic proportion with the perennial tragedies their audience would recognize such as stillbirths and infant deaths. 


The ending of the Biblical story is significant because it focuses on a covenant between God and all living things - not just humans - but all living things.  We hear of Covenants in several places in our scriptures - what makes this one different or special?


The biblical authors who write about God making covenants with humans are writing about a specific type of binding agreement or arrangement between humans and imagining God entering into these social relationships.  An important point to consider is that these agreements are based on and assume relationships. When God makes this covenant with every living creature for all generations after the flood it implies that God will maintain a relationship - an ongoing relationship.


God says “never again.”


But does God really mean that the world will never be destroyed again?  As we read in Genesis - God really only specifies that the world will never again be destroyed by water.  It seems to me that there is some wiggle room left in the covenant.


So is the story of the rainbow - the covenant between God and all living beings - the conclusion of the flood story really a happy ending or good news?


God blesses Noah and makes the agreement - never again.  It seems that God is trying to reconcile or make up with the world.


This story from Genesis really is looking at reconciliation and forgiveness.  Are there some things that are so terrible that forgiveness and reconciliation are not possible?  And can true reconciliation happen so quickly and easily?  God says I am hanging up my bow in the sky to remind myself of this covenant.  But Noah and his family are silent - are they feeling blessed and happy with their God or are they terrified and terrorized by their experiences?


Lets not forget that the story says that everything that was not on the ark perished.  EVERYTHING.  Everyone they had ever known, every place they knew - all gone.  A true apocalypse because God got angry - very angry with the world God had created.  Could they trust this God?  And why does God need a physical reminder every time the clouds come?  Does God trust Godself not to do it again?


There are some problems with the portrayal of God in this story.

We might raise some questions like: Did God do enough to make amends?  Why is the universe so unfair - people who are good or bad may be victimized or rescued randomly.  And what about power and suffering?  How do you make someone act ethically if they choose not to?  Who is going to make God abide by the covenant with Noah and all living things?


Let’s be clear - very clear.  The flood story is  a story of environmental disaster.  We know what this looks like now.  With climate change and instant access to information we know what environmental disasters look like.  How do we stop them?  Can we stop them?  Is it too late to undo the damage we have done?  Is there a willingness on the part of the powerful - the leaders and decision makers to stop environmental disasters?  Is it too late for us to mitigate or reverse climate change?  Are we all just going to be looking for our own ark to get on and save ourselves?


Noah and his family are silent partners in the agreement - the covenant.  Is this because they are afraid of their God?  A God who seems to have serious anger issues. Uncontrollable anger.  Best to tread lightly here - who wants to anger this God?  Terrified?  Traumatized?  Is this how we can or should be seeing Noah and his family?  They have just witnessed and barely survived an act of violence, rage and destruction.


If this covenant is an agreement based on relationships? Could Noah have said no?  Is there really a true agreement or covenant?  Was there any other option but to say yes to God’s gesture of reconciliation?  


Have you ever really thought about the violence and the terror involved in this story?  Have you wondered if the rainbow and the covenant are enough for true reconciliation?


And what about the rainbow?  We look at rainbows as beautiful acts of nature - prisms of light going thru moisture.  But God says I am hanging up my bow - a symbol of war - a weapon.  Is this a threatening gesture or a peaceful one?  Is this a silent threat?


Is it really over when God says never again?


Our scriptures do not reveal another story of the complete destruction of the world by God.  So does the covenant hold?  Can we see in the rainbow a symbol of God’s grace? 


AMEN

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